If you’ve ever had to walk across a rushing stream, the opening sequences of Baahubali: The Beginning will give you anxiety. When see a man named Shiva, played by gloriously mustachio’ed Indian film star Prahbas, climb a waterfall that must be a couple of kilometers high. The top can’t even be seen from the ground as it is high in the clouds. Many times Shiva takes a wrong step, and we watch him plummet to the pool below. Sometimes he takes a flying jump to try to reach a very wet cliff on the other side… same result.
However, the most harrowing scene may be his triumphant celebration dance. After he places a religious totem of his namesake god, Shiva, under a waterfall, he breaks into a happy dance. His bare feet tap atop a rock slick with running water. I was suddenly very concerned for Prahbas, wonder if he hit a particularly slippery patch during any of the unseen takes.
Shiva is distracted from his life-long mission, though, when a mask comes down the waterfall. Serendipitously placing the mask on some sand, Shiva discovers that the face the mask belongs to is that of a beautiful woman. With his spirit renewed, Shiva redoubles his efforts on the climb, now guided by a singing spirit in a flowing white shawl. Baahubali: The Beginning is full of action sequences, but the ones during the elegant song and dance number may be the movie’s best. Now Shiva must navigate a long stretch of cliff face with but a four inch ledge! He swings across swamps like Tarzan and takes a flying leap into thin air so he can shoot an arrow to get access to the next part of the cliff. It’s joyous and fun… Errol Flynn derring-do taken to the logical extremes.
Baahubali has its origins in both Indian mythology and comics (specifically tales recounted in Amar Chitra Katha). According to Wikipedia, two of the characters came from tales recounted by director S.S. Rajamouli’s father. I can’t verify the validity of this: the only references I found online to Shivagami and loyal servant Kattappa are to this movie. However, I have no reservations about the comic book influences. The visuals, the anti-gravity action sequences, and the black-and-white morality are indistinguishable from American comic book adaptations. There’s got to be something about sequential art that, no matter the country of origin, renders scenes in visuals bolder than real life.
The movie, too, often feels downright Biblical. (And if that sounds culturally insensitive… remember, all Old Testament stories were recounted in nearby countries directly east of India.). Shiva, for example, is drawn from the water by a woman who would adopt him. Shirtless slaves strain as they pull on thick ropes, recalling similar scenes in The Ten Commandments. There’s even a 100-foot tall golden statue that’s meant to be worshipped. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, anyone? These grand set-pieces of ornate palaces and byzantine streets are straight up old time Hollywood, as if Rajamouli was trying to establish himself as his country’s Cecil B. DeMille.
Even the star are pretty old school. Prahbas is a classic man’s man hero with the good hair, pecs of melons and knees of fringe. One is reminded of the oiled-up physiques of Victor Mature or Steve Reeves. Though if that’s not to your tastes, Baahubali also features sensuous belly dancers with nice tummies.
When Shiva reaches the top of the mountain, he encounters a pretty warrior maiden named Avanthika (played by Tamannaah) on a mission to rescue her kingdom’s princes, who is currently chained up in the middle of Mahishmati’s city square. As it goes in these things, it’s love at first sight followed by some cute grade school flirting. Our beefy man-golem wins the heart of the fair lass by painting pretty henna on her hands and giving her a fabulous make-over. Before Shiva can realize his destiny as a stylist to the stars, this cute young couple is attacked by imperial troops. Avanthika gets injured, and, in an over-the-top dramatic scene where Prahbas’ hair blows in the wind while backlit against the sunset, Baahubali vows to finish what she started.
Baahubali then introduces the royal power players of Mahishmati. There’s Kattappi (played by Sathyaraj), a noble old slave which masterful sword skills. There’s also. bunch of sketchier characters, like a gross old man with a withered hand and some young weenie with a nicely shaved beard. There’s also the only man in India (Rana Daggubati) who can equal Prahbas in the illustrious field of flexing. He’s Bhallaladeva, the king of Mahishmati. We first see him with an intense glower while he grabs a giant bull by the the horns.
We also find out that Shiva is related to most of these clowns.
We also find out his name is really “Baahubali”. Mainly because when people see his face, a twinkle of hope grows in their eyes as they whisper the name: “Bao-Boo-LEEEEE!” Then the chorus kicks in to remind us that Shiva/Baahubali is an alpha male without equal. Is there a scene where an imagined golden statue of Baahubali looms ten times taller than the one erected by Bhallaladeva? Yes there is. If there were one word to describe this movie, it would be “ostentatious.”
How would you stage the end of a climactic fight? Perhaps you imagine a guy grabbing a sword in mid air from an opponent that had just retrieved it from his running horse. Perhaps you even imagine our hero swinging the sword and seeing the head flying out into a driving rain storm. Here’s the Baahubali difference, though. The decapitated corpse refuses to fall. Baahubali follows the decapitated body for a short distance until, maybe realizing that he is no longer among the living, the corpse finally falls to the ground.
Baahubali discovering his true identity should probably be the end of the movie. However, Kattappi decides to regale everyone of the story of Baahubali’s father, who I will refer to as Baahubali Sr. (also played by Prahbas).
And suddenly… a whole other movie starts.
Seriously, this could have been two movies. It reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes novel A Study In Scarlet, when Holmes decides to tell everyone what really happened. Holmes and Watson disappear and are replaced by all new characters in Act II. It’s not a storytelling convention you often find in Western movies, and it’s a little jarring.
Kattappi’s tale goes all the way back to Baahubali Sr.’s birth and the deaths of both his father (the king) and his mother. (As Crow T. Robot once said, “This is the part of the story we like to call: ‘You HAD to ask.'”). He’s adopted by his aunt, Shivagami (Army Krishnan), a woman with a fearsome way of draping herself on the throne and regarding everyone with a piercing death stare. She could be nursing two children at the same time. It doesn’t matter. She still looks like she could slice open someone’s neck. (Spoiler alert: she does.) Way to work the fearsome eyeliner, Krishnan!
While the Baahubali Jr. story felt a little like The Ten Commandments, the Baahubali Sr. parts have a strong Lord of the Rings vibe. The kingdom of Mahishmati is threatened by … well, they’re orcs. They’re supposed to be a foreign power that stole secret technology, but they look and act like orcs. Their army even has a scary bloody elephant skeleton at its center.
Baahubali Sr. and Bhallalaveda divide the army between them, while Kattappi guards the city gates. It’s determined that whoever kills the leader of the orcs will become the king of all Mahishmati. And thus begins an ersatz battle of Pelennor Fields. Forces consisting of thousands of soldiers (rendered a little unconvincingly in CGI) clash against each other on an open field as arrows fly. Bhallalaveda commands a chariot with spinning blades, and Baahubali spins around with his sword like a dancer.
Fortunately, the movie’s paced nicely so that it doesn’t feel its two-and-a-half hour length. Baahubali: The Beginning, though, is a story with a predetermined part two. It’s both a movie that feels like twice the volume of an average film, but also one that feels completely unresolved. Baahubali Jr. discovers his heritage, but has not directly confronted the powers who have usurped the kingdom. The Baahubali Sr. story solves some mysteries, but opens up all new questions.
I don’t know, then, if I can make a final judgement call on this movie yet. The actors are quite likable, though, and the costumes and settings are breathtaking, despite obviously existing only on a hard drive somewhere. I appreciate the artistic direction as well. The visuals were never going to convince anyone as being completely real. So why not go the other direction and make everything as visually alluring as possible?
Baahubali is currently available on Netflix.
Next: the saga continues with Baahubali 2: The Conclusion!
NOTE: Apologies if I misspelled any of the names. Some of these characters are referred to by three different names. It also seems like names are spelled or pronounced differently depending on if it’s Tamil, Telugu, or Hindi. “Shivagami” was especially tricky. Also, I refer to Mahendra Baahubali as either “Shiva” or “Baahubali Jr.” because I don’t think anyone ever refers to him as Mahendra and I needed a way to distinguish him from the other Baahubali. (Also, he’s technically “Sivudu” at the beginning but I don’t think anyone calls him that, either.)